Pandemic Cooking Reminded Me to Look Within
Artist and designer George McCalman didn't see himself or his culture represented in food magazines, so he embraced his past—taking both the bitter and the sweet—for inspiration.
I’ve never liked cooking. The thought of organizing, preparing, and sustaining myself with my own meals overwhelmed me. I live in San Francisco, a city that makes cooking negligible. I’m social in a way that has convinced me that dining out is an essential form of existence. I eat out several times a week. At least, I used to. The current global pandemic has forced me to re-evaluate my inability to enjoy the simple and heretofore foreign act of cooking for myself.
When my city began its mandated self-quarantine in March, I found myself buying beans, legumes, spices, and kitchen utensils. My pantry was stocked, not ridiculously, as I’d grown tired of reading about in news reports, but just enough for a man who lives by, and with, himself.
I’m generally allergic to people discussing the construction of their food. I have an internal barometer that begins to drop when I sense a looming conversation about braising beef (or other such endeavors). I throw, or rather, I used to throw, monthly dinner parties in my flat. I would rarely cook myself. I’d assign plates to my guests, who would arrive with an array of ambitious and stylish, sartorial creations, from laborious duck cassolettes to surprisingly robust vegan lasagnas, from the healthy to the hedonistic. So I began to assign myself plates, like a guest in my own home.
These plates consisted not of items found in cooking magazines or food websites, but of recipes my grandmother used to prepare for me as a young boy. She would allow me to stand in her kitchen next to her, and watch her mix and chop and test. She let me taste the bitter, and the sweet. I was born and raised on the island nation of Grenada, an African nation born of the middle passage of slavery and the dissemination of the indigenous Arowak tribe by European interlopers. I grew up with the spices of Indian origins, the cooking practices of West African lineage, and the superficial veneer born of colonial omnipotence.
I made variations of what I knew from my grandmother’s kitchen: rotis (an Indian dish, which migrated and morphed in its journey to the Caribbean), split pea soups (that I endearingly referred to as my Doomsday Stew™️). I cooked butterfish, and steamed my vegetables with salt and a little butter. I sliced tomatoes and potatoes for fish broth that reminded me of home. I cooked rice with professorial precision.
I began to wonder why I had told myself that I couldn’t do something I was so obviously adept at. As I sliced onions and shallots on various social Zoom calls, and hand-wrote lists in my preparation of future meals while awaiting chicken stock boiling for vegetable soup (for flavor, obviously), I thought: this isn’t that hard, why have I avoided this?
But the truth is, I had been traumatized. I began cooking when I was 10 years old. After my mother and I emigrated from Grenada in 1980 to Brooklyn, she worked a full time job while putting herself through college at night. So that left the meal preparation to me. I cooked when I arrived home from school, at four o’clock in the afternoon. I was a latchkey kid; one, like many others, to a single mother. “Single mother” sounds almost sexy now as I roll it around my tongue, but I wasn’t that as I was growing up. It was a phrase used as a weapon against Black and brown women, who were targeted by the federal and local governments as an example of human failure. It was a cultural tagline to punish the Black community, to embarrass us into rising to a mythical American standard that never accounted for the white community moving that goalpost to its whims.
I learned to hate cooking, because I learned it as a chore. There was no joy in the process, which was born out of utility, out of the burden placed on a child forced into the role of a parent. My mother arrived home tired, and needing (and deserving) nourishment, which I provided. I cooked simple meals, ones that I had absorbed from my grandmother.
I drew on that time now to mine recipes that have meaning, that remind me of what I know.
But as I looked to be inspired by recipes and dishes to sustain me during quarantine, one thing I have not done is look to food magazines, newspapers, or food websites as a resource.
I used to design magazines. I spent 14 years creating the visual framework for countless stories, consumed by millions of readers. I left the industry eight years ago in silent protest of the practices I had witnessed. The repetition of a boring sameness, the same (white) writers, decided by the same (white) editors, focusing on the same (white) stories. The same (white) recipes. My own understanding was that it wasn’t just damaging to my own psychological health, but that magazines were also patronizing of their audiences. I sat in too many meetings, advocating for a different visual and literary perspective. Advocating for my perspective. The assumptions that people don’t want to learn about Indian spices, or West African cooking practices, had formed a feedback loop of disinterest and laziness. A lack of interest in the world outside of their narrow orbits. I knew the magazines I designed and directed didn’t represent me or my culture. And as culture has shifted dramatically in the intervening years, the platforms documenting that culture have become more nostalgic and reactionary. We’re all the losers for it.
I’ve found solace instead in the maternal memories of my childhood, before the circumstances of my young life forced my culinary maturation. I’m currently sitting in a warm bath of a connection to my culture, through my contemporary culinary interpretation. I am healing my own childhood trauma. I love cooking. I am retraining myself to experience a joy that I hadn’t known in the kitchen before. That is what food does. It connects the past with the present. It’s a form of human language, which allows us to understand our shared history, without having to read it. It's a language to be shared, not hoarded. And I found it within myself.